Over the past 30 years, more than 2.5 million people have died in the various conflicts that have decimated Sudan. Brutal Janjaweed militias, responsible for many of the worst atrocities committed in Darfur, have been equipped by, supported by, and integrated into the Sudanese government's state security apparatus. As such, the Janjaweed get financial benefits from the government, and are shielded from prosecution for any crimes committed on duty by Sudan's 2010 National Security Act.
International aid organizations have faced expulsion from the country for their work, the United Nations has been accused of covering up the extent of the problem, and Western government efforts have had a limited impact. Now, a new initiative is hoping to finally have an impact on conflict in Africa by hitting the warlords and corrupt officials where it really hurts — their bank balance.
Headed by George Clooney and John Prendergast — founding director of the Enough Project and former director of African Affairs at the National Security Council under US President Bill Clinton — the new project, The Sentry, will track the financial flows that drive armed conflict in what they call Africa's "violent kleptocracies": South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Sentry says it will seek to "dismantle the networks of perpetrators, facilitators, and enablers who fund and profit from Africa's deadliest conflicts."
"It's the deadliest war zone in the world over the past 20 years, with little appearance of any chance of a resolution," Prendergast told VICE News. "You have people committing atrocities with zero cost, and meanwhile, they're enriching themselves. They steal everything that isn't nailed down, and then they take out the hammers and steal everything that is nailed down."
The missing ingredient, explains Prendergast, has been the ability to gain some sort of leverage over those people who are willing to commit mass atrocities, genocide in some cases, to remain in power. How do you motivate someone who is motivated primarily by money? Separate them from it. After 9/11, Prendergast says he got to know officials at, among others, the US Treasury and Justice Departments, who told him about the work they were doing on the financial side of conflict and terrorism. Prendergast says he saw it work, most recently with the release of Osama bin Laden's personal writings, in which he lamented the money troubles al Qaeda was having thanks to American efforts. Which is why he believes the Sentry will be able to do much the same thing to warlords and corrupt government officials in northeast and central Africa.
Along with country experts doing on-the-ground fieldwork to identify local players and the practical machinations of how the regimes actually work, the Sentinel will also be engaging teams of financial investigators who follow money trails for a living.
"There are people hired principally to do this for counter-terrorism and organized crime stuff, but no one has ever gone to them and said, 'Hey, lets do it for human rights,'" Prendergast said. "And they'll work for who pays them, of course."
Prendergast sees his team as providing a service that no one else has yet been truly inclined to do. Admittedly, private entities can only go so far. They can't subpoena bank records, for example. Or freeze and unfreeze assets. So, Prendergast and his team the have developed partnerships with those who can — a network of people around the world who already have strong relationships with the US Treasury, the UK's Scotland Yard, the UN, and other regulatory bodies they hope to influence. The dossiers the Sentry compiles will be disseminated to those people who can bring the perpetrators to book. The overall idea is for "some of these folks to start facing personal consequences," says Prendergast. "At least, that's the game plan."
There is a definite cynicism in today's society that doesn't take celebrity causes particularly seriously. And the West's interest in Africa's problems has been lukewarm in recent years, to put it mildly. But winning over the masses isn't what the Sentry is apparently trying to do. Prendergast says they have "worked assiduously to invest in pockets of the population that have a proclivity to care about this stuff, primarily students and faith-based groups, and from there, celebrities become the accelerator."
Members of Congress are eager to have people like George Clooney testifying at their hearings, who open the door for actual experts to take the floor, says Prendergast. They also don't need 90 percent of the US population to know what's going on in the Central African Republic. What they need, explains Prendergast, is something they already have: a small, committed segment of the population that can get the right people behind the issue.
Right now, Prendergast says the Sentry "has the interest of" US President Barack Obama, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and US Secretary of State John Kerry, with whom Prendergast and Clooney have traveled extensively. This is why Prendergast says he's "not terribly worried about mass movements and getting people in the streets."
The hope is that the Sentry's work will begin to take effect in the next few years. And if not?
Prendergast has a simple answer. "If we find that war criminals are impervious to financial pressure, then we'll scrap this plan and come up with a new one," he said.
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @JustinRohrlich